There were over forty of them. We had nowhere to run, the terrain afforded us no hiding place. As we approached the cabin they came at us, their arms outstretched, eyes wide with anticipation. I watched as the horde surrounded us, swallowing us up to satisfy their appetite. There would be no escaping these love zombies. They came at me, smiling, laughing, hugging, and kissing me as I passed through their gauntlet of joy.
I was at my wife's family reunion.
I could hardly think of a thing to say to them that in my opinion didn't sound inadequate or stupid, but still they each had something nice to say to me. I hadn't seen some of them in well over ten years, and most of them for at least three, and yet it felt as though I had just returned from a short trip to the grocery store. When we pulled up to the cabin in the mountains they were all just right there, a giant cluster of people in a flurry of happy activity. They were making reunion shirts using fresh white cotton tees, cardboard stencils, and cans of spray paint. Within two minutes, after hugging the crowd in record time, my kids were part of the fray, blank tees and cans of paint in hand, their creativity flowing as freely as their happy chatter with cousins.
I stood on the porch and marveled at it all. Nervous, unquiet thoughts and emotions that had often plagued me upon arrival to their reunion scene in previous years were absent. I felt comfortable as I caught up with brothers-in-law, fist bumped nieces and nephews much taller and more grown up than I had imagined, and hugged women who offered up not only love and welcomes but food and beverage as well. It was like coming home, and not for the first time.
Come the morning of the next day, my heart and mind were on overload. Such happiness and outward expressions were not the family interaction to which I am accustomed. To witness, receive, and offer up such healthy proportions of love was suddenly too much for my system. I had thirsted so long that when the water was offered I more than accepted a glass or even a pitcher full, but rather dove into it, saturating every pore to the point of bursting. I was drowning from the inside out, and panic was taking control.
I thought it best to sneak away for a spell in order to regain perspective and settle my emotions. My goal was to settle in comfortably and become a part of this joyful troop by the end of the week. To lose sight of that goal, or to surrender to the discomfort and distance myself from them, was not an option I wanted to allow myself this time around. I had to collect my thoughts to the contrary and dispose of them before it was too late.
We had been extended the use of my mother-in-law's vehicle, and I jumped into it and drove out the front gate and towards the reservoir deeper up the canyon. A little machine known as a "Santa Fe," the car looked like the tiny niece to a more powerful and menacing four wheel drive uncle. It was the same car we had used the last time I had joined everyone up at the cabin several years back, and it had served us well then. The favor of its use and the freedom it afforded us was not lost on me. I was very grateful not to be looking forward to an expensive rental charge at the end of our trip.
I turned onto the dirt road and headed up towards the massive body of water. It took several minutes to get there, but I took it nice and slow, rolling the windows down and enjoying the dry heat of the sun on my arm hanging out the window. I played John Denver on my Ipod, filling the woods with the sweet sounds of comforting music. I began to feel a calm descend, and the positive outlook for my week returned.
I reached the reservoir and pulled to a stop at the bottom edge of it. I shut off the engine but left the music playing softly. The water level was higher than normal due to the rain and snow that had fallen in record amounts over the past several months. A few fisherman stood at the very edge of the water, waiting patiently for a nibble, and a few canoes lazed their way across the glassy surface before me. I gazed up at the mountains. They were blanketed in green, a nice contrast to the indigo that filled the sky above. My spirits soared with the sight of it all.
I sat and listened to John sing about rhymes, reasons, prayers and promises. My thoughts were happy ones and peace was mine to hold. I let the music play, and watched the water lay still for a time before deciding I was ready to return to the joyful mayhem at the cabin. I started the engine, turned the wheel, and touched the gas. As I turned the car around, I heard a popping sound and watched a puff of dust fly up above the right front wheel. My carefree bubble burst as I realized at once what had happened. I had popped a tire.
The windows were open, and Utah learned a few new words that morning. I sat in the little car and leaned forward, resting my head on the steering wheel. This was not the zen moment ending that I had been expecting as I drove away from my newfound serenity spot. After a minute or two of wallowing in self pity, I jumped out of the car and was suddenly very conscious of the vehicles in the immediate vicinity. No fewer than eight large 4x4 trucks, a host of four-wheelers, and five horses with riders were within a stone's throw of the tiny little Santa Fe and its punctured tire. The sweat that began to seep from my pores had nothing to do with the heat of the sun. It was due to the fact that I was surrounded by cowboy hats, Wrangler jeans, and sunburned necks.
I have always been self conscious. While I don't really care what people think of me, I really do care what people think of me. It is a strange way to live, thriving as I do on my individuality until it causes me to be noticed. Would that I could capture the elusive ability to pick and choose the times and locations for standing out, but that kind of control remains at large.
I did my best to act nonchalant as I walked around to inspect the flat tire. Dressed as I was in my black Converse sneakers, dark plaid Vans skater shorts, and blue tee shirt with the logo of a Boston based roller derby team known as "The Cosmonaughties," the chance of blending in with a bunch of cowboys was at best a pipe dream. If my attire was an arrow shaped sign indicating my out-of-place presence, the itty-bitty Santa Fe was a billboard lit by bright-red blinking neon lights, topped off with a pair of giant speakers through which played the "Which of these kids is doing his own thing?" song from Sesame Street.
I opened the tailgate of the car and pulled back the carpet. There didn't appear to be a secret panel underneath the which I would find a spare and all the tools needed to swap a flat tire. My core temperature began to rise in order to keep up with the panic building within me. I pictured a long walk back to the cabin, followed by a condescending ride back to the reservoir with my father-in-law. To top it all off, it was the fourth of July. Finding a garage willing to fix the flat (if it was repairable) seemed unlikely. Added to all of these thoughts was the fear that all the time spent in getting the car back on the road would mess up the family plans for the fourth of July. We had tickets to the Oakley rodeo and fireworks that night. I had heard more about this rodeo from Elizabeth and the kids than any other event planned for the week. They had been in previous years, and Elizabeth had been many times during her childhood. I was looking forward to it, and to think that I might be otherwise occupied with a flat tire made me angry.
Not one to ask for assistance until having exhausted all possibilities, I dismissed thoughts of asking one of the truck driving cowboys for help. I knew how to change a flat, but I needed s spare tire in order to do it. I was sure they didn't have a spare small enough to match the little Santa Fe, so what good would it do to inquire? My mind raced through my options, lighting upon the most unlikely of sources for assistance. I would read the manual.
I climbed back into the front seat and dug the manual out of the glovebox. In cases such as the one in which I found myself my mind tends to believe that if I follow common sense protocols to the letter, all will be well. In accordance with this belief, I flipped to the index and searched it for the page numbers related to the spare tire rather than thumbing my way through the book in hopes of finding it by luck. Sure enough, things began to go my way. The pages dealing with the spare tire indicated that it was hidden underneath the cargo hold, hanging from a metal strapping system on the outside of the car. I jumped out of the Santa Fe and knelt down to peer up at the undercarriage. The spare was not only there, but it was pumped full of precious air, and appeared to be a full size tire as well. Hope lit a match and held it out for me to witness.
The only thing missing was the set of tools needed to release the spare, jack up the car, and remove the lug nuts from the flat. I had already searched the cargo hold, and so I spent a few frantic moments searching the rest of the car. I stuck my hands between and under seats, searched the glovebox, and laid down in the dirt to inspect the harness holding the spare in place. No luck. Not wanting to add to my bad fortune, and believing that Utah had learned enough new words that morning, I refrained from cursing. I sat down inside the cargo hold to think, and spotted the manual next to me. I had dropped it there when verifying the existence of the spare tire. I thumbed through the pages detailing the spare tire and read more thoroughly. To my joy I discovered that a secret panel lay underneath a hard plastic layer in the cargo hold where I was sitting.
"Eureka!" I exclaimed at the discovery of the jack and lug wrench. In a flash I was underneath the car, loosening the nut that held the spare in place.
"Looks like you could use some help." A slightly drawling voice startled me.
I turned my head to see two pairs of cowboy boots not a few feet away from my face. I slid out from under the car to see that a rather large cowboy and his even larger but younger companion had moseyed on over from their vantage point to get a better look at the silly city boy and his teeny weeny flat tire. Their faces were tanned almost earth-brown from time in the sun and their jeans were American blue. I looked up at the giant cowboys and began to speak.
"Yeah, silly flat tire. This is my mother-in-laws car. I haven't even been in Utah for twenty-four hours and this trip is already looking to be more work than fun. I am out here from New Hampshire for the first time in about seven years, came for my wife's family reunion. I needed a few moments away from the loving mob. I am just not used to forty some-odd people being so nice to each other, especially when they are family. Then this happens. What a way to spend celebrate independence." I paused long enough to tell myself to shut up, and slid back under the car to hide my face and to finish pulling the tire down.
I watched from underneath the car as the cowboy boots walked over towards the flat tire, then turned around in a slow circle, as if searching for something. The tire harness let go and the tire dropped to the ground. I pulled myself to my feet and dragged the tire out, turned it upright and rolled it around to the front right side of the Santa Fe.
"Why don't you hand me that jack and I'll get 'er started." The older cowboy held out his hand as he said this, and I felt like grabbing hold of it in appreciation. My faith in mankind as a whole has long been on the ropes and his simple words, delivered like the easy going dialogue found in the countless Louis L'amour I had read growing up held restorative powers.
I laid the tire down and pulled the jack from the cargo hold, handing it and the tools to him. He laid down in the dirt to get a good look at the best spot to place the jack. His light-blue, pearl-buttoned western-style shirt was at once filthy from the dust. I choked on the realization that these men were heaven sent, and walked around to the other side of the car, using the pretense of chocking the wheels with rocks to hide as I wiped a few tears from my cheeks.
The jack wouldn't lift the car enough, so the man sent his hulking companion over to their truck to retrieve a large block of wood. I watched him go, and saw him talking to a couple of women and some children seated in lawn chairs next to a portable grill set up near their truck. A large trailer was hitched to the truck, and a few four wheelers were parked on it. A little white lapdog sat on the ground underneath one of the empty chairs. I smiled at the polaroid moment.
The younger man returned with a massive block of wood, dropping it next to the jack. The older man situated the block under the jack while the other used the lug wrench to attack the nuts that held the tire in place. The wrench handle was short, and so was the leverage. He had no luck in turning the nuts. I watched as he strained, his dark face turning a deep red with the effort.
"No luck, this wrench has no leverage. We need a pipe or something we can extend the handle with." The young man stood up tall, the tiny wrench a toy in his massive hand.
"Not sure we have anything like that in the truck, let me think." The older cowboy said, kneeling in the shade of the little car.
I considered my options. I knew there was nothing in the Santa Fe that could be used to gain additional leverage. I badly wanted to have a go at the nuts myself, but looking at the size of the young buck that had just about lifted the car off the ground in his attempt to loosen them held me fast. To try and fail, cementing my city boy image was not an attractive outcome, nor was besting the young man at a feat of strength. I felt trapped by circumstance.
"Let me have a go, for what it's worth." I said, desperate to extricate myself from this dilemma and willing to risk almost anything to do so. I took the offered lug wrench, and Goliath moved back to let little David have his go.
Every lesson I had ever learned about exertion, every word of instruction from coaches and trainers came into play. The phrases "lift with your legs, not with your back," "focus on the flexing muscles and channel your efforts into the ones that need it most," and "do your best, and forget the rest" rose from the depths of my memory, empowering my frame. I settled down onto bent legs, straightened my back, kept my head upright, and pulled on the wrench with every bit of strength and positive energy that I could muster.
The first nut twisted loose, and without hesitation or fanfare I moved on to the next, with the same result. Within moments all of the nuts were off and the tire ready for removal.
"I must've loosened them up for ya." Goliath laughed, my stunning display of strength having no ill effects on his ego. I heard the older cowboy chuckle as he began to crank the jack handle, raising the car enough for me to pull the tire loose.
I hefted the tire into the back of the little car while the two strangers put the spare on and began to tighten the nuts.
"You guys going to the rodeo tonight?" I asked, desperate to find some common ground with such manly men.
"No, we're just up here four wheeling for the day, grilling some dogs and enjoying the fun. We've been to the rodeo many times before." The young man offered in reply.
"My son here lives not far from Oakley, with my grandkids and my daughter-in-law." The old cowboy gestured at his son as he said this. I sensed more than just a hint of fatherly pride in both his tone, and in the way he looked at his boy-become-man when he said it.
Soon the car was lowered back onto all four tires, the tools and jack stowed, and the full size spare tire in place. The little Santa Fe was at last road ready once again. I approached the cowboys to offer up a handshake and my thanks. My hand was black, my arm covered in dirt. My clothes had hardly faired any better.
"Looks like you've been through it." Smiled the grandfather cowpoke.
"Yeah, but that's okay. Thanks for your help, sorry you got a bit dirty yourself there." I indicated to his shirt, now brown in more places than it was blue. The sight of it sparked another round of emotion for me, and I forced myself to hold it together until I had said my goodbye.
"No bother, we expect to get a little dirty up here in the mountains. It comes with the territory." He took my hand in his, and his grip was as firm as I had expected it to be. I fought the urge to hug him.
"Take care, glad we could help." He let go of my hand, and I moved over to his son.
The younger man's hand swallowed mine whole. "I looked around, and the only thing that could have popped that tire was a tiny little rock sticking up through the dirt. Funny how a little thing like that can cause such a big problem." He pointed at a little nub of a rock, protruding from the ground. I kicked at it and nodded in wondrous agreement.
"Thanks so much, I really am grateful, and wish I could return the favor." I said, knowing there was nothing I could possibly do to repay these men that I would never see again. I climbed into the little car and started her up, gave a wave, and pulled away.
I glanced back and saw the two men walking towards their truck and family. The father placed a hand on his son's shoulder, an affectionate gesture that broke open the damn holding back my waterworks. I started to cry, overcome by the swarm of emotions that had enveloped me since arriving in Utah the night before. I reached over and hit the play button on my Ipod as I drove my way back to the cabin full of forty-some-odd love crazed family members.
John Denver sang out loud, "Hey, it's good to be back home again. Sometimes, this old farm feels like a long lost friend..."
The rodeo that night was more fun than a naked pony ride through a field of goose down on a windy moonlit night.
And in case anyone was wondering, there was no condescension in my father-in-laws tone as he expressed his concern upon hearing about the flat tire. In fact, he spent the next afternoon in Salt Lake City, putting four new tires on the little car in order to ensure our safety while visiting. Thanks Bubba.